Field Notes Part 2, Week 2: Atapuerca

Week 2, Day 1 — Atapuerca Mountains

To: Kholwa Mbatha 
From: Evelyn Willoughby
Subject: My body the battleground


It was such a pleasure to discover your letter amid the flurry of mail we received this week. Here, I thought, a note I’m overjoyed to receive and can answer with equal gladness. The mail comes in a flurry, a deluge, an onslaught. More than half the letters go unanswered by necessity, or we’d spend all our time writing and neglecting the research. It’s dizzying to open fan-mail as the roar of a cave lion penetrates the misty forests outside the Dome.

So you say footage of our pre-departure training appeared on some celebrity news channel? A truly historic moment. I suppose they’re only interested in the high drama of time-travel and the harrowing effects it has on one’s body rather than the actual work we’ve done. But perhaps Mission Control is holding those cards close to the chest, at least for now. Discoveries must be reviewed, hypotheses tested and all. How would I feel if I’d not been chosen? If instead I were now reviewing the work of another field researcher?

As it happens, I am currently banned from field work and relegated to making slides and cooking dehydrated meals on the Bunsen. I seem to have caught a tapeworm at our last location. Simple enough to get rid of, one might think. The trouble is that none of the medications have worked to relieve my symptoms so far, leading our doctors to believe it’s either an unknown species, or something entirely different. They’ve taken samples from every possible fluid in my body and a remedy is hopefully at hand.

 The nausea and stomach pains have morphed into muscle cramps and a low fever—I do hope you’re enjoying my delirious ramblings. My head feels just like it did on the days we spent camping out, getting three hours of sleep and slowly going mad in the sun. Even with the discomforts of that era, I still dream of it: setting off on our little field trips, determined to find the bones of something long dead. I’m so pleased you’ll continue on at Witwatersrand with the Human Variation Unit. Please do send updates whenever you have the chance, along with pictures of little Thadie. She certainly has your cheerfully curious expression.

What can I tell you of Atapuerca? Olduvai was more desolate, but I felt at ease there. Or perhaps it was simply the excitement masking my worries. We’ve had rain five of the last seven days and the windows that serve as my portal to the outdoors are growing dark with mold. At night we’re assaulted by a chorus of shrieks and howls, the nocturnal battles playing out at our doorstep. Quite literally, in fact; Andrea discovered the head of a rodent outside the Dome just yesterday. She has spent her days doing brief excursions with the aid of a drone, collecting samples and doing botanical inventories to the best of her ability. 

I’d best be off to respond to questions from Mission Control. Next time I’ll have a brighter perspective on the world, I’m sure. And perhaps I’ll have more stories of hominin adventures to relate.

Sending love and well wishes,

Week 2, Day 4 — Atapuerca Mountains

To: Jun Nakamura
From: Andrea Chang
Subject: Presenting… your new nightmare fuel!


I have sanitized all our lab equipment, scrubbed every dish in our miniature kitchen, sewn up all the gashes in every pair of pants I own, swept under the machinery in the Mystery Box, written three reports from our Olduvai work, and played 27 rounds of Ratkiller with Evelyn (the backs of our hands will probably never recover from all the slapping, especially mine; she may be unwell, but her reflexes are still superhuman). The ace of spades and seven of hearts in our deck of cards will now be permanently dog-eared from their mistreatment in the game. I’m slowly going insane from cabin fever and the outside world is not helping.

It started with the severed head of a ferret-like creature sitting just outside our doorway a week ago. Now, you know I don’t mind dead animals, or guts and gore. And the decapitated critter provided an easy opportunity for identification. A Pleistocene present dropped right in my lap! But when I went outside to check for prints or scat that the predator might have left behind, I found thirteen more dead rodents. Some of them hadn’t even been nibbled—they were just murdered. Blood everywhere, the guts stinking like you wouldn’t believe, glassy little eyes partially scavenged or relatively intact and staring up at me. There are plenty of animals that engage in surplus killing (humans being the prime example), but that doesn’t mean it’s fun to stumble across.

Alright, so I’ve already got a slight case of the heebie-jeebies and then Beetle, our little drone, disappears. I was at my sorry excuse for a desk in the Mystery Box, manually operating it to take video of the area, when suddenly its video cuts off and the drone goes offline. Ominous much? This is the point in a horror movie when the moody piano score switches to the minor signature. And you’re throwing popcorn at the screen and screaming at the protagonist, “Don’t go out there, you idiot!” But Jun, I had to go out there. We need that drone. I knew exactly where it was when it went down, and it wasn’t so very far away, so I told Evelyn what I was getting up to and she gave me that tired, wretched “I-know-this-is-necessary-but-please-don’t-die” look and said she wished she could come with me. If this next round of drugs doesn’t cure her I’m going to lose my mind. I never realized how much I relied on her steadiness to keep me grounded.

Ok, anyway, so I get outside and it’s like I am actually in a horror movie. Mist curling up from the ground, drops of water sliding off the trees and plopping onto my neck, wind making the branches creak. I finally got to Beetle and the poor guy had been clobbered by some huge bird of prey, if the talon marks are anything to judge by. It looks like the raptor crunched it down to a rock and that’s what did our little drone in. He’s cracked and covered in mud, but there’s a chance we can still repair the damage.

I was feeling pretty relieved that the mysterious disappearance all came down to a bird doing its bird thing, and the forest suddenly seemed a whole lot less eerie, when all of a sudden I heard this moan. I dropped to a crouch, got out my taser, and stopped breathing. I swear to God it was like the sound someone makes when they’re dying and it couldn’t have been more than 30 meters away. I waited for a while, didn’t hear anything else, slowly stood up to leave, and there it came again. Three long moans in a row, the most human sounds you can imagine. That was enough for me to get the hell out. I sprinted back to the Box and have been here ever since.

Why is this place so fucking terrifying?! I almost got eaten by a giant cat in Olduvai but I just ho-hummed it off. You’d think with all the time I’ve spent in jungles, the forests around here would make me feel right at home. But they don’t and I hate it and I wish Evie would just get better so she could come with me and krav maga the shit out of anything that tried to attack us.

Your creeped-out friend,